Fireworks and New Year’s Eve go together like… well like fireworks and Bonfire Night, or fireworks and weddings, or fireworks and “because I’ve liked them since I was a kid.”
But why do we have them on New Year’s Eve in particular?
Before we can answer that question we need to ask two others.
Why do we celebrate New Year’s Eve at all?
And why do we celebrate the New Year on the 1stJanuary?
Why do we celebrate New Year’s Eve at all?
Imagine that you lived in a time before diaries and calendars. Thousands of years ago, people knew that it got cold and dark in winter. They knew that the leaves fell of the trees, that the crops stopped growing, that their hunting grounds were empty, that the rivers froze and (particularly) that the days got shorter and shorter, while the nights got longer and longer.
They knew that they needed more fuel for their fires, and that there was less time to find it. They knew they had to eat whatever reserves of food they had managed to build up since the harvest. They knew that some animals would disappear from their woods and fields. And that others would come looking to steal their food – or even to attack them.
They knew that these longer, darker nights would be hard and scary. They were scared that spirits would be roaming, and needed ways of frightening them off. They would have fires in their homes, and already believed that these were keeping the demons at bay.
And they also believed that, however dark and scary these nights might seem, there would come a time when the days would begin to lengthen again. They would eventually feel the slow drift back into spring, when the crops would grow. When the sun would regain some of its warmth.
And they had learned that this happened every year. On a day which could be recognised by the patterns of the sun and the moon, and by the way that sunshine would strike a particular stone or monument in the morning.
But what if that day didn’t come again? Might they be stuck in endless cold and darkness? Might the sun fade further and further away, never to return? Might the gods, or the moon, or the clouds take it away forever? And was there anything they could do to make sure that this didn’t happen?
They began to invent rituals which could force the year to turn. They held winter festivals on the darkest of days. They chanted and sang to the stars, the gods, or whatever powers were in control. They made sacrifices. And lit ceremonial fires. Fires which sent sparks and embers into the sky. Sparks and embers which might even turn into stars and sunlight. These rituals developed and grew.
And the festivals worked! For the sun did return, the days did lengthen, the crops did grow agan, and the people thrived.
But why do we celebrate the New Year on the 1stJanuary?
We know that the winter solstice – when the shortest day and the longest night mark the middle of winter – is actually the 21stDecember. And it is a day which is crying out for us to add light and colour to the sky. It would be a perfect symbolic day for fireworks. It’s why I am writing this post today in the dark of my office, with the rain rattling the windows. But not everyone sees this as the day to celebrate mid-winter.
The earliest human societies of Mesapotamia (near modern day Iraq) celebrated their New Year in March (at the vernal equinox). The Ancient Greeks celebrated their winter festival on the solstice. Christmas is on the 25thDecember (or 6thJanuary in some countries). Hanukkah is celebrated in December or even in November. Diwali comes earlier still, near the beginning of the month of Kartik. Kwanzaa is celebrated in parts of Africa over the five days between December 26thand January 1st. Tschäggättu (no I can’t pronounce it either) isn’t celebrated in Switzerland till February. All of these festivals have used lights, fire and rituals to note and ensure the turning of the year.
Any society which uses the Gregorian Calendar has January 1stas New Year’s Day. It is the start of the month named after “Janus” the two-faced Roman god who had one face looking back at the past and the other looking to the future.
Scientists now tells us that January 1st is the day when the earth is closest to the sun as it moves on its celestial journey. But it’s an accident that we call it the first day of the year. January the 1st even moved by 10 days when Pope Gregory XIII replaced the Roman Calendar with the Gregorian Calendar we use to this day.
It’s all a bit of a coincidence.
And why fireworks?
They give us light to restore the missing sunshine. Fire to warm the night and the soul. Explosions to scare away the demons and the evil spirits. Colour to replace the drab dark days. Magic to bring back a touch of wonder. Parties to encourage the return of spring.
They help us to celebrate the fact that life continues whatever the winter has thrown at us – and let’s face it parts of this winter have been pretty grim.
Of course there will be fireworks at New Year.
And there always will be.